Well, one of the most exciting first round series in recent years ended last night. No matter which team you root for, whether you love the Washington Capitals or Toronto Maple Leafs, or hate them with such vigor that it’s in your DNA, that was good hockey. There is no denying that.
If you're not watching Leafs/Capitals right now you need to reevaluate your life.
— Because It's The Cup (@CauseItsTheCup) April 24, 2020
Swagger Turns to Stagger
The Washington Capitals rolled into Toronto with all the swagger. They were the creepy old candy man in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, there to lure the little lambs to their unknowing slaughter. Like taking candy from the hockey equivalent of babies. This was going to be too easy. Right?
— Sarah Kite 🍒🥧📎 (@sarahekite) April 15, 2021
Four, maybe five games if the Caps were feeling charitable, no need to embarrass the little tykes. Uh huh.
— Mike Jones (@Courjord) April 10, 2021
And guess what, the Caps are quietly slinking back to Washington licking their wounds because the Leafs nearly took them to a Game 7 with nothing to lose. There’s no telling which way the ice would have tilted under those circumstances as all the pressure would have been on the Caps returning home on the ropes against a team that could play fast and loose without a single expectation that they’d ever be there in the first place.
Nothing to Lose
The Capitals let the Leafs in and gave them a little room to get comfortable, and Frederik Andersen kept pace with Braden Holtby never letting the Caps pull away with a convincing lead. In fact, no game was decided by more than one goal. It took an overtime period to decide all but one of the games with the second game delivering a double OT stunner that went to Toronto, on Washington’s home ice.
The reality is, the mighty Capitals were exposed, and the Penguins have been sitting at home watching and taking notes since they dispatched the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday. While this is ordinarily where I would make a couple passing references to the Leafs shortcomings in their first real foray on such a big stage with their young stars on the rise, there is really nothing bad to say about them.
They competed every night like it was the most important game of their young lives when the reality is it’s likely to be the first of many.
Washington can attest to the fact that this team is legit right now, not in two years, or four. Sure, their blue line could use a little more depth, and their star players could use a little more seasoning and maybe a bit more bulk on their smaller frames. But, that sure didn’t seem to phase them against the best the league could throw at them.
Young, and Hungry
Mitch Marner, Auston Matthews, William Nylander, and newly acquired netminder Andersen (from the Anaheim Ducks) have already RSVP’d for the league’s biggest stage for many years to come it would seem. With a couple of defensemen and another season under their belts, this team isn’t likely to be undercut as the easy mark in another first round, no matter who they face.
For their part, the Leafs young guns were fearless against a bruising Capitals team stacked with offensive weapons, a Vezina Trophy winner in Holtby with another nomination this season, blue line depth, and the belief that this is the year they finally shed their bridesmaid status.
It may be, but this series likely did little to instill fear in their next opponent given the pre-puck drop expectations.
Mitch Marner was given all the time and space he could want too often when a few well-placed hits on his 170-pound frame could have set him on his heels. In fact, the Leafs offensive weapons moved relatively freely among the hard-hitting Capitals almost as if they’d been underestimated.
While the Leafs were never going to outhit the Capitals, they did manage to carry an advantage on the faceoff dot through much of the series, and they were never blown out of the water in terms of shots on goal which many anticipated would be an issue with a blue line that lacked the depth of the Capitals. For a young team that was expected to be severely outgunned, this Leafs squad held their own.
Leafs and Capitals make it a record as 18th first-round game to OT; will Schmidt play for Caps after hit? https://t.co/zDTUAVGDjR
— NHL on NBC (@NHLonNBCSports) April 24, 2020
The Capitals won this round, but don’t for a second think that they hopped on a plane celebrating this victory without a care in the world. They know that they got away with a frighteningly close series, and some of their biggest strengths were exposed as Toronto scored four goals on Holtby in three of six games. Holtby has been the Caps most consistent player over the last few seasons, their ace in the hole, but shadows have been cast.
In addition, they were outmatched on the dot in three of the games including a 61% success rate on the dot for Toronto in Game 2’s double OT win. These are numbers that cast doubts among even the best teams, and they likely won’t be good enough if they continue into the next round.
Of course, their fate is yet to be determined, and all of this could be a footnote if they manage to hoist the Stanley Cup, but they will likely never forget the feeling of being on the wrong side of a team with nothing to lose.
— NHL (@NHL) April 24, 2020
So, while Toronto might lament a missed opportunity, they will be the ones walking away with their heads held high, while the Capitals will be forced to reflect on what went wrong and how they can fix it in relatively short order. The Penguins will be looking to rip the scabs off of any wounds the Leafs might have inflicted and cast further doubts if any linger in the Washington locker room.
Washington, welcome to the hunger games, you are no longer the favorites and will have everything to prove upon facing the reigning Stanley Cup Champions.
For the Leafs, they exceeded the expectations of just about every hockey enthusiast, commentator, fan, foe, and even their own.
With nothing to lose, they took the Capitals deeper than any other team in the first round with almost as many overtime games (5) in one series as there were in the entire first round last season (7). In fact, their Game 6 overtime frame (18 OT games over all first round series) broke the previous record from 2013 (17).
For as good as Connor McDavid is in Edmonton, they are not the only team on the rise in Canada. The league has officially been put on notice; these kids are alright.